Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, who describes herself as having been lesbian until converting to Christianity, had this to say: “Romans 1, especially verses 24-28, contains the most frightening lines in Scripture to anyone struggling in sexual sin.”
Many who teach that same-sex relationship are sinful believe that in Romans 1 they have found the smoking gun. Consider this statement by Robert Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice:
“With good reason, Rom 1:24-27 is commonly seen as the central test for the issue of homosexual conduct on which Christians must base their moral doctrine. This is true for several reasons. It is the most substantial and explicit discussion of the issue in the Bible. It is located in the New Testament. It makes an explicit statement not only about same sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism. And it occurs within a substantial corpus of material from a single writer, which allows the interpreter to properly contextualize the writer’s stance on homosexuality” (p. 229).
I’ve had my own struggles with this passage of scripture, sometimes related to fear. Reading scriptures with openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit is the least talked about and most difficult part of discerning the will of God as expressed by any particular text. I’ve had to struggle through fear and defensiveness. Often, I wanted to believe Romans 1 does condemn same-sex relationships so that I wouldn’t lose everything I had as a pastor and respected part of the Seventh-day Adventist community. The reasons for fear are varied and personal.
Ultimately, Butterfield offers advice in a different part of her book that is probably more helpful. “When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack onto it.”
Let us approach with passage with trust and not fear, curiosity and not defensiveness, humility and not self-righteousness. We just might learn something.
Because there is far too much for one blog post, I’m going to tackle this passage in three posts.
Interpretations that are non-affirming of same-sex relationships
Interpretations that are affirming
The relevance to our lives today and what Paul might say if he were here
First Look at Romans 1:18-32
The first thing most people do, myself included, is to simply read the passage. I recommend that you take a couple minutes to do so now. Romans 1:18-32.
The most important section for our discussion is verses 26-27:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
First, I want to recognize that simplicity of this passage. Taken on face value, it is describing sexual encounters between people of the same gender, and it is not complementary. These acts are a result of God giving them over. They are shameless, unnatural, and involve a penalty.
If all you need to know is what you know from your first reading of these two verses, you can stop reading now. If you have no curiosity about the context, and no openness to the thought that your understanding of words can change once you learn more about the circumstances and context in which they were spoken, then you won’t enjoy this post.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which this verse is found, contains sixteen chapters and 433 verses. These are two of those verses. That these two verses are such a small part of this book does not mean they are insignificant or should be ignored. On the contrary, these are important verses for this discussion and that’s why I’m taking so much time on them. What it does mean is this: They need to be taken in context of the other 431 verses.
Think about the last time you wrote an email. I mean a long email about something important. You made it long because there was a lot you wanted to talk about. You made it long because you didn’t want to be misunderstood.
The worst thing someone could do would be to come along and pull out two sentences, say those two sentences were clear, and make an assumption about what you were saying. You would hate it. You would not think they were taking you seriously. You would not appreciate it at all.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was a long, important letter. He wouldn’t appreciate this approach of taking two sentences out any more than you would. He would want to be understood. And there is one other huge factor that gives us good reason to ask ourselves what he meant by what he said, rather than simply going on our first impression, and that’s that his words were written 2000 years ago when Rome was the capital of the world. A few things have changed since then. We shouldn’t assume too much.
Something all of us need to get over is the idea that our first impression of any verse of scripture upon reading the English translation is always correct. That’s just lazy.
I’m not talking about those desperate moments when you just need to hear from God and you open up your Bible for some inspiration. I’m not talking about that. I am not saying we can’t read our Bibles and have confidence that God has inspired scripture.
I am saying that when it comes to verses that have serious doctrinal and practical implications for our lives and the lives of others, we should never take the 15 second version of a Bible study. We should dig deep.
Romans 1 is About Honoring God’s Creation Pattern
Christians who do not affirm same-sex sexuality also believe that understanding the context of this passage is important. They generally argue that Romans 1 is a reference to the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2.
They believe Paul is not only making an isolated statement, but that his argument roots sexual expression in the creation of man and woman. Any sexual expression that is not between a man and a woman is wrong. It’s important for their case to make this argument, because if unrestrained lust is the only reason these sexual encounters in Roman 1:26-27 are wrong, it leaves to door open for same-sex committed love that is about covenant and not objectification.
Romans 1:18-24 is certainly packed with references to creation. In the position paper on “homosexuality” published by the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, the following statement was made:
Paul begins by referencing the “creation of the world,” and the power and divinity of God seen through “what has been made,” but then reflects how the story has changed. Humans now remake the glory of God into an “image” and “likeness” of “corruptible man,” as well as of “birds,” “animals,” and “creeping” things. The human then ends up worshiping these very creatures that humans were meant to have dominion over, and abandons the natural use of the “male” and the “female.” The inversion is complete, instead of having dominion over the beasts, humans now worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator.” They remake the image of God, in which both male and female were fashioned, into an intensification of either masculinity or femininity (Rom 1:20–25).
While this view certainly has much to commend it, the more I read Romans 1 in both Greek and English, the more apparent it became to me that this is a subtle shift away from Paul’s actual argument.
There are a few problems with this interpretation:
- Paul doesn’t describe people exchanging dominion of animals for worship of animals. There is no mention of dominion or the responsibility of man to animals.
- The list of things worshiped includes people as well as animals, so even the exchange of worship isn’t worship of animals, but worship of all created things, including humans.
- There is no reference to the creation of man, the woman being from the man, or any of the ways Paul typically references the creation story. In terms of the creation of man and woman, the only words that connect are the word “man” and the word “woman.”
- The only aspect of creation that Paul directly sites is that God is creator and people and animals are the creation. In doing so there is shared vocabulary, but not shared ideas.
- The reference to images are better understood as relating to idolatry than creation.
Sometimes the implication is made that by using the word “nature” (Greek phusis) Paul is referring to the creation narrative, but that would be the only time in 11 uses of the word that Paul references creation. Furthermore, “nature” does not appear in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in the Greek translation, the LXX. It’s much more natural (pardon the pun) to think that Paul was using the word the same way he always does, as a simple description of how things are.
It’s About God, Not God’s Creation
There is a much more simple way to understand what Paul’s talking about. Read the passage carefully. Paul isn’t talking about the order that should exist among the creatures, but the order that should take place between the creatures and their creator. I recommend a careful read of Romans 1:18-25. Here are some points worth noting:
The foundational idea is that what is plainly known to anyone is the existence and power of God through creation, what is known as general revelation. Paul specifically points out that even Gentiles should know this. They don’t have Genesis. Paul makes plain what the content of their knowledge should be: that God is God and God is powerful. This is known through observing creation. It is not specific knowledge about the creation narrative (vs. 19).
They knew God, but they chose to worship God’s creation instead of God, that worship of creation includes both animals and humans, not a changed relationship between animals and humans (vs. 20-21).
They did this through idols (vs. 22-23).
Closely tied with this idol worship is giving in to lustful hearts and dishonoring sexual behavior “among themselves.” Their sexual behavior did not involve the covenantal boundaries of marriage. This may refer to an orgy (vs. 24-25).
I’d also like to expand on the way Paul uses the word “image,” because the argument is made that it’s a reference to the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1:27, which reads: “So God created man in his own image/ in the image of God he created him/ male and female he created them.”
However, Paul’s use of the word better follows the Old Testament prophets who spoke of exchanging the glory of God for graven images. Paul said in vs. 23, “[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (NASB).
A close reading of the text shows that it’s about the connection between creation and creator, not how the creation relates to each other, and that idolatry leads naturally to God “giving them over” to all kinds of lust. Note that the first time Paul speaks of this lust (vs. 24) there is no mention of same-sex sexuality, so the assumption that that’s all he’s talking about is specious.
This linking of idolatry and lust is not a new concept in scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of close connections between idolatry and sexual licentiousness (Exodus 32; 1 Kings 14:24; Isaiah 57; Hosea 4:12-14; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; and Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25). Sometimes those sexual behaviors involve same-sex sex, and sometimes they don’t. They always involve sexual encounters that are purely driven by lust and which have no relational or covenantal context.
What Does Same-Sex Sex Have to Do with Idolatry?
So it’s referring to idolatry and not the creation narrative, does that mean it’s not a legitimate restriction of all same-sex sex? We need to understand is how it’s connected to idolatry, and then we can answer that question.
Occasionally, I’ll read an argument about same-sex sexuality that connects it specifically to idolatry in a way that heterosexual sex doesn’t connect. John Piper makes the argument in this post:
When you exchange the glory of God for idols, the main one that you exchange the glory of God for is yourself. The idol that you have is yourself. Well, what sex is yourself? My sex is male… The deepest thing that I’ve ever hit upon for why God would disapprove of this is not just that the Bible says “Don’t do it,” and not just that God created male and female. Deep down there is a kind of idolatry involved in same-sex relationships that is very profound.
This is an argument that only sounds profound. It doesn’t translate to reality. A marriage relationships with someone of the same gender is about as much like a relationship with yourself as a friendship with someone of the same gender is a friendship with yourself. Just because someone is the same gender does not mean they aren’t an entirely different person. Each person who is not yourself is an entirely different human being. This should be obvious.
You aren’t kissing yourself when you kiss someone who also has lips. You aren’t having sex with yourself when you have sex with someone who shares your genitalia. You aren’t sharing thoughts with yourself when you share them with someone of the same gender and sharing them with someone else when they of a different gender.
Piper is using an allegorical argument that does not translate to human relationships. It certainly has nothing to do with the way scripture presents the connection between idolatry and sex. Scripture does not make this connection as a gender-based connection, rather it is connected with adultery.
Idolatry, Adultery, and Covenant
Idolatry in scripture is compared to adultery, prostitution, and sexual immorality in general (Jeremiah 2; 11; Ezekiel 16:20-34; 23). The entire book of Hosea is dedicated to this metaphor. That’s because God’s relationship with Israel is a covenantal relationship, just as marriage is a covenant (Isaiah 42:5-8).
Israelites who worshiped other Gods were like adulterous spouses because they violated the covenant Israel made with God in to book of Exodus (see chapters 19-20). It’s a failure in fidelity either for lust or security, either because they are drawn in by the allure of the worship of other gods or the promise of reward from foreign powers and gods.
That covenant that Israel made was not for Israel only, but for the whole world, as Isaiah references in the verse above. Paul has no problem applying it to Rome, because all of us are God’s creation. Paul is calling all people to covenant with their creator and specifically calling Romans out as “without excuse” (vs. 20) and bound to their creator-God.
Idolatry is understood as a betrayal of covenant as a result of being controlled by lust and fear. A biblical understanding of the relationship between sex and idolatry is that failure in covenant with God leads to failure in covenant in human relationships.
Those relationships begin with spousal relationships, but they don’t end there. The Prophets are full of descriptions of the failures in fidelity to all those in society who most need it, and of selfishness and lust for gain run wild (see Isaiah 1:15-18; 46:6-7; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 10:1-25; Amos 5:10-12; Revelation 18:2-3).
This is exactly what the later half of Romans 1 is about (vs. 28-32). So what Paul is doing is not referencing the two chapters at the beginning of the Old Testament, but the overarching cautionary message of the Old Testament and especially the prophets. God made a covenant, people broke that covenant, which lead to broken covenants in their primary familial relationships, followed by broken covenants with all of society, especially the most vulnerable.
The core motivation is selfishness, not in terms of bizarre metaphors about loving yourself when you love someone of the same gender, but the basic human impulse towards self-gratification at the expense of someone with whom we have made a covenant.
Scripture often connects idolatry and adultery, but only occasionally includes references to same-sex sex when it does so. That’s because it’s not by nature a gender issue, but an issue of fidelity versus selfishness.
Same-sex sex makes a particularly stark example precisely because it was never part of a covenant in ancient Rome or Israel. To say that this verse is specifically denying covenantal same-sex relationships would be to degrade the core of Paul’s argument. Paul isn’t forbidding covenant for certain genders, he’s pointing out violations of covenant. That is the whole point of the idolatry and adultery motif in scripture, and it is certainly not something that would be lost on Paul’s Jewish audience.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the non-affirming interpretation is the way in which it shifts blame. Rather than focusing on the ways in which humans objectify each other through sex, it puts the blame on gay marriage, as if Romans 1 is addressed to queer people and not straight people.
As with all minority groups, there is a long history of the LGBT community being scapegoated. You can see it today in calls to save marriage by denying it to same-sex couples. If I marry another woman someday, it poses no threat to any marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, it affirms that I see value in marriage.
The truth is that there are more straight divorces than there will ever be gay marriages, but no one wants to outlaw divorce. And there are more straight people in relationships who choose not to be married than there will ever be same-sex marriages, but again there is no desire to mandate marriage for straight people.
Traditional Christian churches have a tendency to focus on the small LGBT community. It’s funny how the things we do in our lives show up in our interpretation of scripture. Then those interpretations in turn justify further scapegoating of the LGBT community. Blaming the queer community is much easier than looking in the mirror, learning to be less selfish, and keeping your own covenants.
Romans 1:26-27 is often treated as if it applies only to the 5% or so of sexual minorities, not straight people. Yet the reality is that Paul was just talking about people. There are reasons why same-sex sexuality was a great example in Paul’s day for the failures of infidelity and selfishness of all people, and those will be discussed in the next blog post on Romans.
More to Come
I know this post doesn’t answer all the questions you might have about this passage, and I’d love to hear your questions in the comments. I’ll talk later about why same-sex sexuality is used to speak about lust. I’ll also talk about what this passage does mean for us today, and whether it permits same-sex relationships. All those questions and more need to be asked.
However, the foundational understanding espoused by those who do not affirm same-sex relationships is that this passage is about defying the creation of gender-based marriage in Genesis 1-2. That argument is not supported by the text, which is referencing the honor do to God who is the life-giver as opposed to Greek idolatry, and the desire to consume that can blind us to the truth, mar our connection to the creator, and bring selfishness into all our relationships.
Selfishness and broken relationships are not being singled out by Paul as a primary aspect of same-sex covenants and not straight covenants. The selfish desire to consume others is a human issue, not a gay issue. This verse is a challenge to all of us, not only to sexual minorities.